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Artful expression, from the heart

Disabled artists come together for Walters exhibit

Artists ply their trades for a number of reasons, whether it's painting as a way to make money or sculpting as a means of expressing deep and complex thoughts.

At Portland-based art school Art from the Heart, the process of creating art has become a way for developmentally disabled adults to build social skills while simultaneously learning ways to express themselves through a number of media.

Established in 1990, Art from the Heart offers classes in a wide array of media - from painting and drawing to encaustics, ceramics, bookmaking, music, theater and beyond.

The overarching goal of the organization is to provide developmentally disabled adults with a way to connect with one another as a community while also exploring their own creative spirits.

The results, says program director Emily Conradson, are often a delightful surprise.

'I really am surprised with the quality, especially when they try new media,' says Conradson. 'It's so interesting and versatile. I'm surprised when people want to focus on drawing and painting, and then you give them a new media to work with and they love it.'

Throughout September, two dozen pieces of artwork from Art from the Heart are on display at Hillsboro's Walters Cultural Arts Center. The exhibit marks the group's first show in the city.

Through the program, students of Art from the Heart are exposed to multiple media and offered the chance to try their hands at many different styles.

Unlike many art classes, however, Art from the Heart's focus on working together as a community helps its participants branch out into many different levels of expression, creating an environment where art becomes less a solitary endeavor and more a social event.

'A lot of artists do work in isolation, including me. But this is really a way to connect with other people and find the common point where they can work together,' Conradson said.

'The artists are creating in a social environment. People are proud of their artwork, and they want to share their work with other people. People definitely influence each other in terms of subject matter, and in trying things.'

Conradson says the program also offers a unique challenge for the staff, which is tasked with fostering the sense of community while also urging its attendees to express complex ideas and emotions through art.

With so many different personality types and levels of disability, she says it can sometimes be difficult to maintain focus. But once that focus is honed, she says, beautiful things result.

'We deal more with socialization, the day-to-day building of social skills,' says Conradson. 'We have 29-31 artists scheduled to attend every day, so that's a lot of personalities. Hopefully on top of (socializing) we can actually get together well enough where we can make some artwork.

'If we're going to be creating work in the same environment, then everybody needs to be OK with everybody before you can focus on what you're doing. The classes and the structure help with that goal.'

At the end of the day, Conradson and her team are almost always able to help the students of the organization find themselves as artists. The proof of the program's success is literally on the walls of the school's in-house gallery, and in the halls of the Walters Center.

'It's all over the place,' says Conradson. 'Not everyone has the same interests and abilities. We try to keep it very broad so that people can try new things, and to keep it interesting for the staff so we get to play too and continue to help people grow as individual artists. Their work is just amazing.'

- The Art from the Heart exhibit is on display through Sept. 28 at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, located at 527 E Main St. in Hillsboro. To learn more, call 615-3494, or visit ci.hillsboro.or.us/wcac or artfromtheheartpdx.com.